BRENDA CAYMEN had known for a long time, with some part of her mind, that Rob Roemhildt was going to die. It is the sort of brutal fact that 35-year-olds are forced to accept about their best friends these days, when their best friends have AIDS. What she hadn't expected was that the day she would be called upon to clean his house out would arrive so soon, or that he would die of something besides AIDS-- something sudden and sinister, perhaps even as sinister as murder.

She hadn't imagined that when she pulled up in front of the neat brick place on Dayton Street for the final time, she'd be looking for clues. She couldn't have imagined she'd find so many, either.

She drove to the central Phoenix house on a Monday in the spring of 1990, when Rob Roemhildt had been dead four days. On Saturday, she had heard about his death from his stepmother, who had heard it from the police. Alerted by a neighbor who hadn't seen him in a while, the police had found Roemhildt's decaying, nude body lying on his futon.

Caymen had called the police herself on Sunday and been told by a detective that Roemhildt had probably committed suicide. Like nearly everything else the police would say to her before the investigation of Roemhildt's death abruptly ended, this explanation hadn't made any sense to her.

"We were soul partners; we could talk about anything," she says of her relationship with Roemhildt. "I could tell when he was not feeling well or happy, and he felt fine." She had spent several hours with him on the Monday before his death and had found him to be, as usual, optimistic and filled with plans--for the purchase of a new washer, for planting more flowers in the yard, for a visit with a friend who was coming to town for the weekend. He had been a man living for the future.

On Sunday, she also learned something far more confusing and chilling than that the police suspected suicide: Rob's doctor, Ken Fisher, informed her that when Roemhildt was discovered dead, his penis was missing. The police had told Fisher that Roemhildt's dog, a miniature dachshund named Max, had eaten the penis when left alone for two days, without food, in a house with a dead man.

Fisher didn't (and doesn't) buy it. Although it's not uncommon for hungry pets to devour body parts when locked up with corpses, Fisher had never heard of a case where only the penis was gnawed off, as though it were a delicacy, and not a single other wound or a chew mark appeared on the body. He had said so to Caymen.

And he thought he knew that Roemhildt had not died of natural causes related to AIDS, either: He treats many AIDS patients and told Caymen that they don't die suddenly. Instead, they usually contract a secondary infection to which the AIDS virus has made them vulnerable--pneumonia, cancer, an infection of the heart muscle--that sets them on a course of slow, miserable decline. This wasn't yet the case for the 35-year-old Roemhildt, who was in Fisher's office for blood work only two days before he died and was found to be in fine shape--not suffering from secondary infections and the possessor of normal blood pressure, kidney function and electrolyte counts. In light of all that, Fisher even doubted that his patient had died suddenly from a heart attack or kidney failure. "Three days before that I was dancing with him, and he was outdancing everybody on the floor," says Fisher. "He was very healthy."

Fisher believed that Roemhildt, who was gay, had been killed and his penis taken as a trophy. He refused to sign the death certificate for the police, and requested an autopsy from the medical examiner's office. He had classified Roemhildt's death as a murder for the insurance company.

And although Fisher's theory filled Caymen with horror as she listened to it on the telephone, she wasn't able to discount it, because of even more bizarre details that she couldn't make fit.

When Roemhildt was found, his television was turned on and a pornographic tape was languishing in the VCR. Beside his bed was a tube labeled "Foreplay Sensual Lubricant." Two bottles of "rush," an inhalant that intensifies orgasm, were also by his bedside, and a third was inside a nightstand drawer. (Says Fisher, "One person cannot use two bottles of rush.")

Neither Caymen nor Fisher could make heads or tails of these facts. They thought they knew that Roemhildt, not wishing to infect anybody, had been deliberately celibate for five years. They thought they knew that he eschewed all drugs religiously, having adopted an intensely healthy lifestyle upon learning he had AIDS.

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Deborah Laake